Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE CHINA SHOP

THE CHINA SHOP (1922) comes from the pen of one of my favourites in this genre, Arthur Penn. I've commented on the Gilbert and Sullivan resonances of his work in CAPTAIN CROSSBONES and YOKOHAMA MAID. This one doesn't disappoint in furthering that conceit, but it has more than a few problems all its own.

We start with a brief prologue, sung by two "chinamen" before the curtain:

A new Chinese operetta
We present to you tonight
The scene is laid in gay Ping Pong
The story isnt very long
In this Chinese operetta
We play for your delight
We'll charm your ears with many a tune
And finish up with a honeymoon
In ths Chinese operetta
We present to you tonight

Now the Chinese cannot boast much music
And what they have sounds queer
It's the kind of music that might make you sick
If we sang much of it here
So if the tunes we sing you
Dont sound very much Chinese
You will surely like them better
In this Chinese operetta
For they're likelier to please

Yes, it's sounding pretty insensitive right off the bat, but remember, this is 1922 we're talking about. Not exactly a time when anyone was let off lightly for being "different".

We open in a backroom behind Fat Sing's shop. The trade is exceedingly brisk (although exactly what he sells is -- and remains -- a mystery), most of it conducted by his son Sing Fong. Fat Sing is at the point in life when he realizes he cant take his wealth with him when he dies, and his son consoles him with the suggestion that he leave it to someone... like, maybe, his son.

FAT SING. Your suggestion is a good one, and like most good suggestions it will be ignored.

No, rather than spoil his son with wealth that would make work unnecessary, Fat Sing has decided to leave his fortune to the Ping Pong Orphan Asylum. Sing Fong none too gracefully accepts this, reminding his father that upon his demise, Sing Fong will become an orphan and might perhaps benefit, "if only indirectly", from his father's legacy.

This is interrupted by the entrance of Mush Lush, an avowed woman hater, and Hoy Tee Toy, the woman he wants as wife.

MUSH LUSH. I pointed out to her that love and hate being only a step removed from each other, she could naturally hope to overtake the former by walking briskly.

Hoy Tee Toy sends him on his way, then turns her attentions to Sing Fong, telling him that she has brought three lovely young ladies he might consider for his own wife, her "three belles". His choice is set aside when an impoverished fisherman enters, looking to sell a doll he has outside. The doll, as it turns out, is the lovely Lotus Blossom, the fisherman's niece, and Sing Fong is immediately smitten. He takes his new acquisition into the kitchen just before we meet Juscot Karfair, a "reformer" from Medicine Hat, Kentucky. Through him, Lotus Blossom realizes she's in love with Sing Fong and insists he become her husband. Sing Fong is more than happy to do this, until his father reminds him that she's penniless and Sing Fong is penniless, "a speedy cure for love".

But it gets even worse for Sing Fong: his father is leaving for points unknown. He informs Sing Fong that he'll tell everyone that his son is the heir apparent to his fabulous wealth, just for a laugh. Thinking he's rich beyond all expectation and therefore highly influential, the city fathers want Sing Fong to become the new chief magistrate. Although it's not clear exactly what, this puts another obstacle in his hoped for marriage to Lotus Blossom, who, weeping, returns to her uncle's shanty by the sea.

Act Two is a year later. Sing Fong is celebrating his first anniversary as magistrate with a garden party. No one understands why he hasnt married in all that time (considering they've all done their best to throw every available woman at him). Further, he's issued a decree that any heiresses who are still unmarried by sundown must leave Ping Pong in banishment. Hoy Tee Toy tells the three belles that one of them must land Sing Fong that night. But even that hope is dashed when his secretary reveals the magistrate's latest decree:

Sing Fong will marry nobody
Good bad or sick or healthy
Except an orphan who must be
Incontinently wealthy

("Incontinently"?)

Sing Fong enters, in a truly lousy mood, and immediately dismisses the belles because none of them are orphans. Now, why is he doing this, you ask? Because he wants to set things up so he can never marry: he's still in love with Lotus Blossom, who, true, is an orphan, but a penniless one. All seems lost until Wun Tun, one of Sing Fong's political associates, makes a marvelous discovery:

WUN TUN. Your illustrious father, who disappeared a year ago, was drowned a month later on a voyage to a far province. We kept the news from you at the time because we only learned about it an hour ago.

SING FONG. That was very thoughtful of you.

WUN TUN. Your father, as is now known to all, left every yen to the Ping Pong Orphan Asylum. This institution has been unoccupied for ten months at which time the last orphan was married off to a lonely widower. Consequently, no one felt concern when the Asylum itself burned to the ground.

Sing Fong hopes this means his father's wealth will revert to him, but Wun Tun cuts that off, telling him that the terms of the will dictate it must be divided amoung the indigent orphans of Ping Pong. For the last hour, apparently, they've been looking, trying to find these indigent orphans, with limited success. The parents of Ping Pong were all extremely healthy, and what orphans there were appear to have married well. The only one left is... Lotus Blossom, who now in addition to being an orphan is filthy rich. Free to fulfill his own decree, Sing Fong makes sure everyone, even the belles, gets married on the spot. So with much rejoicing (well, sorta: something on that in a moment), the curtain falls.

Now. What to make of this addled little play...

As noted, it's from 1922, later than CAPTAIN CROSSBONES and YOKOHAMA MAID (as well as the to-be-discussed LASS OF LIMRICK TOWN), and you would thnk that Penn's satirical outlook would have sharpened. Instead, the humour is dry to the point of arid, and this is the first piece of his I've encountered in which the plotting seems, well, slapdash, with a huge hole right in the centre. There's no reason to prevent Sing Fong from marrying Lotus Blossom at the end of the first act: his ascension to chief magistrate doesnt really change things for the two of them. But without creating this obstacle, Penn doesnt have a second act, so I guess it was just put in there with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

And that seems to permeate the entire show. It has a few great lines, but you almost get the feeling that Penn's tired of doing it all. As far as I can tell, this is the last show he wrote solo: everything from here on out was done in collaboration. Granted, he worked with some major names in the genre, like Geoffrey Morgan, whose individual creativities inspired him musically. But CHINA SHOP appears the work of a man about to give up. Unlike the wit of CROSSBONES or YOKOHAMA, this one tries far too hard, with too many poorly executed puns and too many jokes that want desperately to sound funny... when they just arent. The social satire we saw in the previous works is practically non-existant, and the characterizations are flatter than the two-dimensional stereotypes they hope to evoke. On a later reading, I thought, okay, maybe he wants everyone to be as bland as possible, perhaps to make the show into some sort of turn of the century commedia play where the performers are free to go as big as possible. But that doesnt work either.

Then there's the curious character of Karfair, the reformer from Kentucky. He doesnt really move the plot anywhere, and yet somehow this third-tier character gets the finale, a reprise of his earlier song "My Kentucky Home". It's slightly bewildering, as though Penn shoved him in in the last draft as yet another attempt at hoping to find something funny to say. I daresay a director today would find a way to eliminate him altogether, by reassigning his lines and incorporating songs from other works by Penn to fill in the gaps, thus leaving room for a finale about, you know, the happy couple, like it should be.

Musically, his work is just as good as ever, with some lovely ballads for Lotus Blossom and a some musically amusing ensemble work for the Three Belles. The first act finale hints at what Penn no doubt hoped to accomplish, with choral writing that could have come from Iolanthe or Patience. But the rest of it simply dies on the vine. I suspect that, in contrast to his other works, CHINA SHOP was not a wild success.

Curiously, Penn dedicates this work to the inhabitants of the "Island of Mantsees". A Google search failed to shed any light on where this might be: the only reference I could find was in a poem by Whittier, who appears to treat it as a metaphor. Maybe this was some kind of inside joke?

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